Safety Now at Napa State Hospital

“If I get murdered tomorrow doing my job, how much will you give my family and what will you say to my children?” Napa State Hospital social worker Corinne Weaver's haunting question brought the overflow crowd to their feet. Hundreds of Napa State workers filled the room, testifying to the level of danger and violence they must confront everyday.

Last week's forum on how to improve safety for patients and workers at the Napa State Hospital was convened by newly elected Assembly Member Michael Allen and co-hosted with Senator Noreen Evans. Workers finally had an opportunity to speak publicly about the working conditions that have been overlooked for years.

In the '90s, statewide reforms emptied state mental hospitals, moving patients into community settings like group homes. State hospitals became housing for those sent by criminal courts.

Today, ninety-two percent of state hospital patients were sent by criminal courts, a major increase from the twenty percent that were just 15 years ago. In Napa, 86 percent of the 1150 patients were committed by the courts, either found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity.

The changes in patient makeup have not prompted the changes you'd expect in security and employee protection. According to the hospital's spokesperson, over the past two years, there have been 224 instances of patient assaults on staff so severe that they caused employees to miss work. Five years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice found “widespread and systemic deficiencies,” jeopardizing the safety of workers and patients. 

Frequent attacks escalated with the brutal murder of psychiatric technician Donna Gross in October of last year. In December, a rehabilitation therapist was attacked by a patient and sustained a skull fracture.

After the attacks, a KGO reporter asked a nurse on condition of anonymity, whether she feared getting hurt when she went to work. Her response was chilling: “Absolutely. Every day.”

Since then, hospital employees have been speaking out, calling for better security for workers and patients. The ongoing violence we have seen at the Napa State Hospital underscores the fact that patient care and safe working conditions are inextricably linked. When workers are brutalized on such a regular basis, imagine what happens to vulnerable patients.

Workers have formed a Safety Now Coalition to demand that hospital management and the state act immediately to improve safety. Last month, hundreds of workers held a rally to highlight the dangerous conditions they work in.

At Friday's forum, workers offered a number of straightforward solutions to protect patients and staff from epidemic levels of violence they face on a daily basis. Simple ideas like isolating the most aggressive patients, assessing threat level based on safety risk rather than flight risk, and improving police response times have been offered by workers for years but have been dismissed by hospital management.

Usually when a worker is seriously injured or killed on the job, what follows are co-workers saying “we knew this would happen.” In many cases, these horrible tragedies were totally preventable if workers concerns were taken seriously. Napa State employees say they have pushed for years to improve safety but have been ignored.

A heartbreaking letter from Donna Gross' daughter was read aloud at the forum and her words captured what workers said over and over: “my mother's brutal murder was preventable.”

Kim Cowart, a registered nurse at Napa State, said it best at the rally:

We are not expendable. You cannot replace us when one of us dies or gets injured. We matter to our families.

That is what the fight for safe workplaces is all about. Napa State employees have lived in fear for too long. Now is the time to listen to the workers and make the changes that can actually save lives. Assembly Member Allen agrees and he vowed at the end of the forum that “we are going to get change.”